The Empty Canvas, p.7Alberto Moravia
As I have already said, my mind, at that time, had been distracted by boredom to such a degree that I had forgotten the existence not only of Balestrieri but also of the girl about whom I had a certain curiosity. Therefore it was without surprise that I realized I had been in my studio during the last two days without knowing that, three doors farther on, Balestrieri had been taken ill, had died, had been watched over through the night, had been placed in his coffin, had been carried away. Heaven knows, I thought, possibly someone had spoken to me of Balestrieri's illness, and I, while hearing of it, had not listened, lost in boredom as I was; just as it sometimes happened that I read carefully the headlines in the newspapers and discovered a moment later that I had no idea of what they said. It had required the coffin, or rather the painful blow from the coffin on my forehead, to make me remember the painter's existence, at the same moment when I became aware of his death.
Balestrieri's death, moreover, had not been so simple a matter as might appear at first sight. That same day, partly through the shocked allusions of the caretaker, partly through the more explicit comments of a group of friends whom I met at the café, I was able to reconstruct the old painter's end. It appeared, then, that Balestrieri had died at a very special moment, that is, while he was in the act of making love with the girl who had so often smiled at me. Furthermore, this love-making had not been of a normal kind—meaning by 'normal' the act which leads to procreation—but rather a distortion of it, an erotic speciality, so that Balestrieri had been killed not by love-making but, so to speak, by the manner in which he had done it. The caretaker refused to be explicit, she merely alluded to the matter with indignation; my friends at the café, on the other hand, had been cheerfully liberal with details, just as though they had been present in Balestrieri's studio at the moment of his death; but, as I finally managed to establish, this was all a question of supposition. In reality Balestrieri had felt ill and had died under the frightened eyes of the girl: that was all that was known for certain. The fact that the girl was his mistress, that he had been found half-naked on the bed, and finally that the girl herself had run out and called the caretaker in a dressing-gown with nothing underneath—all this seemed to confirm the gossip about a sudden death which had taken place at the moment of pleasure. But those who were unwilling to believe in a death of this kind pointed out that the girl was in a dressing-gown because she was a model and was sitting to Balestrieri, and that the latter, in the summer, always used to work in a sleeveless vest and a pair of bathing-pants. On the other hand, in support of the 'love-death' gossip, there was the reported statement of the doctor who had been summoned to the death-bed: 'If this man had realized that there are certain things that cannot be done at his age, he would still be alive.' Others, however, maintained that, after examining Balestrieri, all the doctor had said to the girl was: 'Signorina, you killed him,' adding, nevertheless, immediately afterwards: 'Or rather, you helped him to kill himself.' But no one knew who this doctor was nor where he was to be found; he might have been called in through one of the numerous chemist's shops in the neighbourhood; nor did I trouble to track him down.
That same day, after having lunch in a little restaurant in Via Margutta, I went back to my studio and found a parcel with a note from my mother. In her note, my mother gave me a lesson in good manners: 'Another time, instead of running away like that, do at least come and say good-bye to me '; in the parcel were my dinner-jacket and the light trousers which the good Rita had cleaned and ironed. I threw the whole lot on to the floor, lay down on the divan and lit a cigarette. I was suffering, as usual, from a cruel sense of boredom, and it seemed odd to me that other people did not notice that I was bored, that is, that they did not realize that, for me, they themselves and the whole world did not really exist, and that, like my mother, they should continue to behave towards me as though I were not bored. As I lay there smoking, I gradually began to reflect upon my situation, which was obviously going from bad to worse every day; and finally I asked myself what there was left for me to do, now that I had given up painting and had nevertheless not had the courage to accept my mother's money. I realized that there was little to be done, in the sense of any action that would introduce some really substantial change; but that I could always do what many people do when they find themselves in an unendurable situation: accept it and adapt myself to it. Fundamentally, I thought, I was like some scion of a noble but decayed family who obstinately tries to go on living on the same sumptuous scale as his ancestors. The day he accepts a situation which hitherto has seemed to him unendurable, and which, on the other hand, is the normal situation of an immense number of people, he ceases to suffer and realizes that everything which seemed intolerable at one level is no longer so at a lower level. In reality, what made me suffer was not so much boredom itself as the idea that I could, and should, not be bored. That is to say, I also belonged to a very noble and very ancient family which, in the past, had never been bored, which, in other words, had always had a direct and concrete relationship with reality. I had to forget this family; and to accept, once and for all, the position in which I found myself. But could one live in a state of boredom, could one live without any relationship with anything real, and not suffer from it? Here was the whole problem.
As I meditated thus I became drowsy and fell heavily asleep, with a sensation, almost, of drowning rather than sleeping. I had a very vivid dream: I seemed to be standing in front of my easel, my palette in one hand and a brush in the other. On the easel stood the usual empty canvas; and beside the easel—a curious thing, because it was several years since I had done any figure painting—stood a model. She was a young woman with a sage, bespectacled face very reminiscent of Rita's, and with a curiously flat, unsubstantial body against whose bloodless whiteness the twin dark spots on the breast, like big, dark coins, and the black pubic triangle, stood out startlingly, like those of a corpse. I was, supposedly, painting the model; and indeed my hand, armed with a brush, was moving and evidently painting on the invisible surface of the canvas. I went on painting with care, with concentration, with assurance, the picture was going well, the model did not breathe or move and would have seemed to be really dead if it had not been for the gleam of her spectacles and the faintly ironical smile that curled her lips. Finally, after a very long sitting, the picture was finished and I moved back a step or two so as to contemplate it at leisure. To my amazement, the canvas was empty, blank, clean; no female nude was visible upon it, either drawn or painted; I had certainly been working but I had done nothing. Frightened, I seized the first tube of colour that came to hand, squeezed out a jet of paint on to the palette, dipped the brush in it and frantically flung myself upon the canvas again. Nothing: the canvas remained blank; and meanwhile the girl was smiling more and more mockingly at my vain efforts, all the time retaining the sage, hypocritical expression imparted by her big tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses. Then a hand was placed on my shoulder; Balestrieri—Balestrieri and none other—a fatherly smile upon his red face, took the brush and palette from me and planted himself in front of the canvas, turning his back towards me. He was wearing a sleeveless vest, and a pair of summer-like bathing-pants, and his get-up reminded me of Picasso, to whom I suddenly found he bore some resemblance. Now Balestrieri was painting and I was looking at the back of Balestrieri's neck over which fell his thick, silvery hair, and I was thinking that Balestrieri was painting whereas I, on the other hand, had not succeeded in doing so. Then Balestrieri's picture was finished; Balestrieri had gone; and I was standing in front of the picture. I did not know if it was good or bad, but anyhow it had been painted; the canvas was no longer blank and empty as it had been when I myself had finished painting, it was covered with marks and colours. Suddenly I was seized with an overwhelming rage; I snatched up the small knife that I always use for scraping colours and struck at the canvas violently and methodically, that is, from the top to the bottom, in such a way as to cut it down its whole length. But I found, to my horror, that it w
It was a cloudy day and the studio was filled with a subdued, grey, melancholy light. I jumped off the divan, and acting as though I knew what I was doing, rushed to the door, opened it and went out into the corridor. It was empty, and the four doors were closed; or rather, as I looked more carefully, I noticed that the door of Balestrieri's studio was ajar. Without thinking, and still acting in an almost mechanical way, I went to this door and, finding it indeed open, pushed it and walked in.
I had never before penetrated into the old painter's studio; so I was now able to imagine that it was merely curiosity which brought me there. The curtains were drawn and the studio was almost in darkness; a lamp with a red shade, on a carved and gilded wooden stand—a piece of church furniture, probably—stood burning on a table covered with purple damask. In the blood-red light from this lamp I was able to perceive that Balestrieri's studio was very different from mine. In the first place it was larger, with a staircase leading to a wooden gallery on to which two small doors opened. Furthermore, while my studio had the look of a real painter's studio, sparsely furnished and very untidy, Balestrieri's, as I noticed at once with a vague feeling of repugnance, was furnished and decorated like an old-fashioned middle-class drawing-room of forty or fifty years ago; and nobody could have imagined that a painter had lived there, had it not been for the famous nudes hanging close together on the walls from floor to ceiling, and for a monumental easel placed in a good light near the big window, with an unfinished canvas upon it. I was struck particularly by the gloominess of the furniture, most of it antique or sham antique, in the Renaissance style. The walls, behind the pictures, were hung with red damask; on the floor, all in confusion and one on top of another, were numbers of Persian carpets of dark, close design. I closed the door behind me and then, looking about me all the time and sniffing in the curious smell that hung in the air, a mingled smell of death chamber and domestic interior, I walked slowly across to the easel. The unfinished picture could only be the one in which Balestrieri, just before his death, had been painting his youthful mistress; and I admit that I was now seized with curiosity to see what her figure was like. But when I stood in front of the canvas I had a feeling of incredulity and disappointment. Balestrieri had made a charcoal sketch of a figure which I found it very difficult to connect with the slender body and childish face of the young girl who had so often smiled at me. It was one of his usual exaggerated nudes, portrayed, into the bargain, in a strained attitude, squatting down on folded legs but with hands clasped behind the back of the neck in such a way as to give the greatest prominence to the breast and hips, two parts of the female body for which Balestrieri seemed to have a special partiality. I was particularly struck by the amplitude of the loins and the heaviness of the breast which I did not remember having noticed in the model. The slim waist, on the other hand, and the slender shoulders and arms might well have been hers. It was significant that Balestrieri had forgotten, or not troubled, to draw the face; so that any identification, for me at any rate, was impossible.
I looked for a long time at the canvas, reflecting that Balestrieri was really an extremely bad painter, even according to the remote naturalistic tradition to which, in a very vague way, he was related; then I turned back into the studio and started to examine the pictures hanging on the walls. They were all nudes, as I have already mentioned, all female nudes, most of them posed in unnatural, strained attitudes; and the first thought that occurred to me was that Balestrieri, although he was an extremely bad painter, was nevertheless a very careful painter, accurate, in fact, to the point of pedantry. It was obvious that he did not rely on inspiration and worked rather in the manner of the old masters, by means of successive glazes, coming back again and again to certain details until he was completely certain that he had exhausted all their possibilities. The result, alas, was that special sort of naturalism, photographic, laboured and too highly finished, that you can see in the paintings shown in so-called art exhibitions at galleries of the most commercial type. Furthermore, it was obvious that all these pictures were perfect of their kind, with the hideous perfection that belongs essentially to pornography. In other words, Balestrieri's world was a concrete, coherent world without any cracks or pollutions in it, and little did it matter if it gave the impression of madness. Balestrieri himself had been perfectly happy in this world, right up to the moment of his death, without ever doubting it or trying to get out of it. Perhaps he had indeed been a sort of madman; but he was a madman whose madness consisted in an illusion of having a relationship with reality, that is, of being a wise man, as his paintings bore witness; whereas I—as I could not help saying to myself—was possibly a wise man whose wisdom consisted, on the contrary, in a profound conviction that such a relationship was impossible, that is, a wise man who believed himself mad.
As these thoughts were passing through my mind I had been going all round the walls, looking at the canvases one by one and not finding any in which it was possible to recognize the features of the girl with the childish face. I said to myself that it must have been like that: Balestrieri had never painted his little mistress, he had been content merely to make love to her; exactly the opposite of what might have been expected in view of his advanced age. I was on the point of going away when a sound from above made me raise my eyes. Balestrieri's girl at that moment came out of one of the small doorways leading on to the balcony and started down the stairs, in a leisurely manner and evidently unconscious of my presence; her eyes were cast down, she had one hand on the banisters and the other up to her chest, supporting a large bundle.
When she reached the foot of the stairs she at last raised her eyes and seemed to be frightened at seeing me standing there in front of her, beside the table in the middle of the studio. But only for an instant; immediately afterwards, a look of relief and calm spread over her round face, as though the encounter were no surprise to her and she had in face been prepared for it for some time. I said, in embarrassment: 'I live in a studio close by; perhaps you may have seen me sometimes. I came in to have a look at the pictures.'
Indicating her bundle, she answered: 'And I came to fetch my belongings, before the studio is let. I was his model; he had given me a key, so I was able to get in.'
I noticed that her speech was completely devoid of any kind of accent such as might make it possible to guess where she had been born or the social class to which she belonged. Her voice was colourless and neutral, with a preciseness and economy of tone that suggested, almost, a certain reserve. Not knowing how to go on, I asked casually: 'Did you come and see Balestrieri often?'
'Yes, almost every day.'
'But when did he die?'
'The evening of the day before yesterday.'
'Were you there when he died?'
She looked at me for a moment with her big dark eyes that seemed not so much to observe things as to reflect them without seeing them. 'He was taken ill while I was sitting for him,' she said.
'He was painting you?'
I could not help exclaiming in surprise: 'But where's the canvas on which he was painting you?'
'That's the one,' she said, pointing to the easel.
I turned, glanced quickly at the canvas and then, more lingeringly, at her. In the half-darkness that seemed to dissolve and absorb her contours, her figure appeared more than ever slender and childish, with the wide skirt hanging over the thin legs, the narrow torso and the pale face swallowed up by the great dark eyes. I asked incredulously: 'Was it really
She, in turn, appeared astonished at my astonishment. 'Yes,' she said, 'Why? Don't you like the way he's painted me?'
'I don't know whether I do or not, but it's certainly not like you.'
'He hasn't drawn in my head because he always did that last. So how d'you know it isn't like me?'
'What I mean is that the figure drawn by Balestrieri doesn't look like yours.'
'D'you think so? And yet it is mine.'
I was aware of the utter futility and falseness of this pseudo-artistic discussion, over a picture of such a kind and on a question of resemblance into the bargain. But even though I felt ashamed, just as if there had been a tacit collusion which I ought to reject, I could not refrain from answering in a lively fashion: 'It's not possible, I can't believe it!'
'D'you think so?' she said again; 'and yet my figure is like that.' She put down her bundle on the table, went to the easel, contemplated the canvas for a moment, and then turned and went on: 'Perhaps there's a little exaggeration, but on the whole I'm just like that.'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes